December 18, 2011
At first, playing chess against Garry Kasparov is much like playing chess against anyone else. Take the pieces. They look the same as when you are playing against other people. They move the same way. For some reason this is surprising to me, and so is the fact that we are five moves in and he has not checkmated me yet. He must be off his game, or, just maybe, dare I hope, I am a lot smarter than I thought I was?
But there he is, across the table, actually thinking about his next move. I have a rush of satisfaction. Brain the size of a planet, the greatest chess player who ever lived, and I have made him think .
This moment has been a long time coming. When I had originally explained to Kasparov’s assistant that I wanted to play chess against the great man himself, she had made it clear that this was asking quite a lot, but she would see what she could do.
Then, when I arrive at his flat, I have to re-explain my errand to his mother, who seems to run the PR show for Garry Kasparov Inc. “What rank are you?” she finally asks.
“Um, no rank really. But I know the rules,” I say helpfully.
“No problem, I’ll put out the board. You know where the pieces go?”
When her son comes into the living room, I have a weak-kneed, gibbering moment where I can’t stop grinning. Kasparov, radiating the kind of charisma you tend to radiate if you recreationally play chess against supercomputers, takes his seat behind the board, and rearranges the kings and queens. I have put them on the wrong squares.
He is a bit plumper and greyer than when he played his famous marathon match against Anatoly Karpov almost 30 years ago, but has none of the arrogance or ill temper one expects of great sportsmen.
“What should we talk about first?” I ask. “Politics or chess?”
“I think your readership is more interested in politics? We can talk chess later,” he says.
Kasparov’s career has always mingled the two. His great rivalry with Karpov, the standard bearer of the Soviet establishment, tracked the decline of the Soviet Union when Kasparov, the darling of the democratic intelligentsia, beat his fellow grand master in 1985. At the world championship in 1990, he played under a Russian flag (despite being from Azerbaijan) while Karpov played for the Soviet Union. When Kasparov won, it was a sensation.
After retiring in 2005, Kasparov became the face of opposition to an increasingly authoritarian turn under Russia’s then president, Vladimir Putin , now prime minister. For a time, his face was ubiquitous at opposition marches in Moscow that usually featured more grey-clad riot police than demonstrators. He was arrested twice – the second time he spent five days in prison. But he was more successful at chess (“where the rules are fixed and the outcome is unpredictable”, as he puts it) than he is at politics in Putin’s Russia (“where the rules are unpredictable and the outcome is fixed”).
For someone who sees so many moves into the future, his decision to take on Putin in 2005 was reckless and ill timed, the political equivalent of a kamikaze dive when the regime was at its most popular and most repressive – before it was chastened by the economic collapse of 2009.
“[Politics] was a different game [from chess],” he says. “But although it was different, I had to play. There’s not much you can do, if you believe, as I do, that it is a very important moral choice.” Kasparov was vilified and Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group, famously produced door mats emblazoned with Kasparov’s face for “patriotic” Russians to wipe their feet on. He was also hounded for supposed collaboration with the CIA.
“I used to play chess expecting to win,” he says, “but this game [politics] was not about winning or losing. It was about losing. From the beginning the position was a dead loss.”
Kasparov is still credited by democrats for fighting the good fight. “We showed people that they could think over Putin, past Putin,” as he put it. Today, their opposition, which a few years ago was limited to a few hundred activists from Moscow and other major cities, now seems to have rubbed off in a generalised mood, and Putin and the Kremlin establishment have seen their approval ratings fall off a cliff.
I want to know what he thinks of the big news that week – for the first time Putin had been booed in public while giving a speech at a martial arts event. (At the time of going to press, protesters were marching on Moscow’s streets.) “It’s a natural process of a rejection. He stayed too long. And he’s no longer the man offering a bright future,” Kasparov says. “The state has lost its sacred image, and that is always a sign of change.”
Kasparov readily admits that he has now lowered his profile. Some in the opposition whisper that he has been threatened, but he says he simply needed to devote more time to his pet causes, such as a new global initiative to teach chess in schools.
He continues to be active in the anti-Putin opposition, but he is no longer out being thrown in police paddy wagons or manhandled by gangs of regime thugs. “The fact that I’m not as visible here doesn’t mean that I lost my touch with the Russian political reality,” he insists. “Basically, I live on a plane. I can’t make a single dollar in my native country. (Income from the corporate speaking circuit is impossible here, since no Russian firm wants to be associated with him.)
He vows nevertheless “to keep up my responsibilities for my friends and for my allies here”. He has just returned from campaigning in Washington on behalf of the Magnitsky act, a law that would ban Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses from setting foot on US soil. He also actively campaigned for a boycott of the recent parliamentary elections, clearly rigged for the benefit of a handful of loyal opposition parties and the United Russia party.
“We should tell the people honestly that this is not an election. We have to start creating an alternative,” he says. “It’s not happening overnight – it may take a month, six months, a year, several years – but you have to start moving people in the right direction.”
We have been playing for about a half an hour, about 10 moves in, and I have two of his pawns. And he has only got one of mine. I’m actually winning. Against Kasparov. I’m giddy. Overconfident. It is all going to my head.
There is a certain temptation in chess to get style points for breeziness. He moves, and then I move right away, as if to say “oh yeah, I’m just sitting here writing in my notebook and playing chess with Garry Kasparov, and it’s all a piece of cake because I do this every day.”
This leads me, on move 16, to rashly move my bishop to f5.
The point at which you become aware that this is not like any other chess game is when, 20 moves later, after you have been checkmated, he can hit the rewind button in his head, and put the pieces back the way they were on move 16, and explain to me that this was my “collapse”. Then he can show me how by moving my knight to f7, it would have avoided catastrophe, and plays out the next dozen hypothetical moves.
I nod sagely, even though I have very little grasp of what he is talking about.
Then he takes my notebook, and writes out all 35 moves in the game from memory, putting a question mark next to move eight (pawn to f6) and move 16 to highlight my major blunders.
I lasted 35 moves! And he swears he was playing his hardest. Swears.